Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bach's Mass in B Minor, a major source for the compositional techniques of all western music

One Christmas Eve – actually Christmas morning after midnight in the mid 1990s, I was driving back to an Arlington Apartment across the 14th Street Bridge from a Christmas Eve service at MCC Washington in Shaw, the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” of the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232  , by J. S. Bach played triumphantly on the car stereo radio. I have near-perfect pitch, and wondered why the triumphant, rising theme of the final chorus (earlier the Gratias, BWV 29/2) ends in the relative D Major, rather than the Picardy Parallel B Major.  This is Bach's only complete setting of the "Ordinary" or "short mass".

I have an Angel-EMI recording with the Trevor Consort somewhere, but today I played on Youtube with the English Consort conducted bt Harry Bicket, recorded in 2012 in Royal Albert Hall in London. The soloists are Joelle Harvey, Caroyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon and Matthew Rose. It runs 110 minutes, slightly less than average.  The pitch in the recording is 1/2 step low (that is, B-flat minor to D-flat Major) compared to my Casio piano, which I believe is set to A440.

The Wiki notes explain that D Major is the key that Bach associates with Christ, with the elements of the Cross by the surrounding keys of B Minor (in which the work opens) and F# Minor, often used.

One of the comments says that the B Minor Mass, along with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, are the three greatest works of classical music ever composed.  The Mass was not completed until 1749, shortly before Bach’s death and reuses a lot of earlier material.
The work (especially this robust performance) demonstrates how “modern” Bach can sound.  Bach (whom my first music teacher starting in 1952 said was the greatest of all composers) was the first composer to standardize modern western harmony as well as counterpoint, away from the modal systems, and to enrich the process of key modulation, all possible because the technology of pitch temperament had improved during his lifetime. That fact gets relatively little attention now.  In fact, the way romantic composers (from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler) manipulated dissonances, sometimes allowed to hang unresolved (as with a famous moment in Beethoven’s Eroica) can be traced all the way back to Bach, especially this work.

In the 19th Century, most Romantic composers built cyclic works around harmonic concepts that Bach had developed to seemingly absolute perfection.  (There were rare exceptions, like Chopin’s B-fat Minor Scherzo, which ends in relative major, and sounds a bit trite to me.) It became common for large works in minor to end in the parallel major, often triumphantly. However, Mahler chose to end the Resurrection (#2) in the relative E-flat major, and ended the first movement of his Third in the relative F Major (as if the 30-minite first movement were one long Exposition in a bigger “process piece”) before ending the entire work with a (finally triumphant) slow movement back in the parallel D Major.  To my ear, a parallel major ending is more satisfying because it tends to ratify the original tonality.

As an example of the way Bach’s idea of progressive tonality works, consider the three minute popular song “In the Moonlight” (2010) by Reid Ewing, which his character Dylan sings on “Modern Family” The song seems to be in B Minor, and a lot of the melody swings around the notes B, C#, and D (just as in Bach’s Mass) and then makes excursions to G and F#.  But the song ends in the relative D Major.  Try memorizing this song – the music only – and playing it on a church organ (like the new Austin at First Baptist in Washington DC).  As abstract music, It actually works!  It almost sounds baroque. The words, “do me” – oh, well.  

I’ll mention something else about the close of the Bach Mass – the rising theme sounds a bit like the original inversion of the “hymn tune” (which is a comparable downward scale) as a major second subject in the reconstructed finale of Bruckner’s Ninth. Did Bruckner really intend homage to this work in the way he concludes his last symphony, “To God”

Wikipedia shows the Mass as in four major sections, each section a suite of smaller pieces of the mass. The shortest is the Sanctus.  The First section encompasses what is often the Kyrie and Gloria in many later masses.

Back in 1961, during that lost semester at William and Mary, another music friend, Jon De Longe, said that the opening of the Kyrie (in B Minor) is one of the most thrilling of all music to him.  I was already a romantic.

Bach is reported to have said, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”  De Longe often talked about “The Real Music” back in 1961.

Update: January 1, 2016

Sebastien Letocart recommends the performance with the Monteverdi Choir and John Rliot Gardiner (also on YouTube).  He also says that "western" tonality was well established by or for Byrd, Sweelinck, and Buxtehude.  He also says that the tuning convention for baroque music is A415, about a half step lower than common today. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Unusual family rock concert at Arlington service post-Christmas

Today, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington had a Christmas “rock” so-to-speak (call it “contemporary”) concert by “The Scholl Family”.

Unusual carols included “Mary, Did You Know?” and “That’s Christmas to Me”.

Instead of a sermon, there were four testimonials.  There were some poems by Anna George Meek, and a statement about reconciling the specificity of the Gospel at Advent with the vast vision of cosmology and quantum physics (of greatest interest to me), and a narrative about a man who opened his home and expanded it for the intellectually disabled, which is off the chart for me personally.

I remember from my years in Texas, that contemporary was common with many evangelical churches.  There was one ("Bible Church") I visited in a trailer in Rowlett, which is probably near the area affected by the tornadoes Dec. 26.

Christmas Eve, Trinity held three services, with the main event the 11:00 PM carols and lessons service. The anthems included a Cradle Hymn by Isaac Watts and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” by Fred Gramann, as well as “Night of Silence” by Daniel Cantor.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Light Balls display in North Carolina simulates UFO scene or rapture (with carols)

Today, the NBC Today show covered the “Christmas Light Balls” festivals in certain neighborhoods of Greensboro, NC, as well as Port Huron, MI and Morgantown, W Va.

The effect at night is that of hanging UFO’s, s if a scene from a sci-fi movie, or even a simulation of a Rapture.

There are collection drop-offs for food banks as people drive through.

One issue is that practically every home in a neighborhood would have to do the work of setting them up and participating, to make it effective.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Atlanta Homeward Choir, composed of homeless men, sings at the White House

On NBC News tonight, Kristi Nelson reported on a homeless men’s chorus that was formed in a shelter run by a church in Atlanta, that is the Central Night Shelter.

The best link is from an Atlanta NBC affiliate here. (An earlier video embed on NBC seems to have been accidentally overlaid.)

CNN has a similar story by Deena Zaru and Alex Lee with Video.

The group will perform at the White House this week.  The brief excerpt on NBC included “Alleluia” and the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain”.

The founder of the choir Donal Noonan (Director of Music Ministry at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) spoke about helping the men this way as a moral necessity.

The group is called the The Atlanta Homeward Choir and has this Facebook page.

Picture: Atlanta Pride, mine, 2004.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"The Dream Isaiah Saw": moving cantata dedicated to Sept. 11 tragedy, presented today by Arlington VA church

The Mount Olivet Methodist Church of Arlington VA today held a “Lessons and Carols” service that presented a short but powerful cantata, "The Dream Isaiah Saw" by Thomas H. Troeger, words from a poem by Glenn L. Rudolph, for chorus, organ, piano and percussion.  The work is dedicated to those who perished on September 11, 2001.

The Saturday Chorale has a descriptive article on the work.

The work begins in A Minor and emphasizes a slow triple meter that oddly can be marched to (sometimes Robert Schumann did this).  The work ends in triumph in the relative C Major (rather than the Picardy A Major).

Naxos Records has licensed a performance by the Washington Chorus on Youtube.

Also performed were an anthem “There Is No Rose” by Howard Helvey, and a children’s anthem “Come, Jesus, Prince of Peace”, by Dianne Hannibal.

Monday, December 14, 2015

58th Annual Christmas Candelight Carols service at First Baptist Church Washington DC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held its 58th Annual Christmas Candlelight Carols at 4 PM Sunday December 13.

I misplaced the program (going to Trio and JR's afterward) so I don’t have the names of all the hymn composers.  Some church composers are not as well known in the general classical audience.

I do recall an anthem “The Work of Christmas” by Dan Forrest based on a poem by Howard Thurman, link.

The Runnymede Singers, directed by Erica Haman with Caroline Heaney, performed several hymns including a spiritual.  It also performed the “Angels’ Carol” by John Rutter (well known for his “Requiem”).

Organist Lawrence Schreiber and a brass and timpani group performed several hymn settings by Robert J. Powell.

It’s important to note that several Christmas carols come from major composers.  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is #2 of “Festgesang”, which also has the text “Vaterland in deinen Gauen”.

And “Joy to the World” has a theme pieced together from two different melodies in George Frederick Handel’s Messiah.

There was also a Holy Family Tableau.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Major Christmas cantata by McDowall performed at Arlington VA church today

Today, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA held an advent music performance at the 11:15 AM service.

The main work was the cantata “Christus Natus Est” (“Christ Is Born”, 17 min) by Ceclia McDowall (1951- ).  Again, a major modern female composer, from Britain.
The work seems centered around the tonality of F Minor but the score (which I could see today) doesn’t have key signatures.  But the style resembles that of Ralph Vaughn Williams, with the louder, rowdier and more joyful works like “Hodie” as well as a little harmonic darkness (the Fourth Symphony)..

The text is in both Latin and English. One of the more controversial lines is “How should I a mother be That am to man a stranger?”

The performance included a brass and quintet and percussion.  I had never seen a tuba muffler used before.

The service also included, as an offertorium, a “Prelude on Puer Nobis Nascitur” by Paul Lindsley Thomas, with both Matthew Stensrud and Carol Feather Martin at the organ.  I’ve never seen four hands organ (at one instrument) before, even though it is common with piano.  (Latin translation: “To us a child is born.”)

The Postlude was another 4-hand piece on the organ, a “Flourish on ‘Joy to the World’” based on the carol by George Frederick Handel, transcription by Robert Hobby.

The Prelude was Carol Feather Martin’s own transcription of J.S. Bach’s “My Spirit Be Joyful.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Richard Strauss: Symphony #1 in D Minor, composed at age 16, deserves more performances; also, Marion Bauer's "American Youth Concerto"

Here’s a nice find, the Symphony #1 in D Minor (37 minutes) by Richard Strauss, composed in 1880, at the age of 16, played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on the Marco Polo label here.
The work has a bit of “storm and stress” rhetoric, and often sounds a bit like Mendelssohn, but has several amazingly familiar themes, especially in the finale.  Is this obscure work familiar to Hollywood film composers?  (I used to ask that about the Mahler Seventh, whose “Night Music” seemed to get quoted a lot in the movies before the work became part of standard repertoire thanks to Leonard Bernstein.)   There is some strong contrapuntal writing in the finale, too.

It’s not just Mozart;  a lot of composers wrote very strong works in their teens and early 20s.  I’ve talked about D’Albert here.  Brahms would not compose a symphony until age 40, but the passionate first piano concerto was written at age 25, and the big piano sonatas are youthful.  True, a lot of Bruckner’s work is from an older person, as is much the case with, say, Vaughn Williams.  Mahler’s Piano Quarter was composed at age 16, and the impressive “Das Klagende Lied” was finished at 18, but the first symphony waited to age 28.

It seems that major symphony orchestras could organize concerts around the idea of works composed before age 20.  I used to “call” for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts (in 2002-2003 when still living in Minneapolis, after “The Big Layoff” at the end of 2001 at my old job).  It strikes me that works like this one by Strauss could be a good selection (you could pair it with youthful contemporary works).

Richard Strauss, as a composer, has always been recognized for the strength of programmatic tone poems that he composed early in adulthood, as some consider the later orchestral works weaker.

While on the topic of "youth", I mention the Piano Concerto in G Minor (1943, 16 minutes) by Marion Bauer, titled the "American Youth Concerto" which I read when taking piano lessons, here. I may have an old hardcopy score lying around in a moving box somewhere.  The majestic (turning to lively) theme in the finale will sound familiar.  Bauer's style recalls Amy Beach.
(I had reviewed the big F Minor Symphony, #2, here on June 19, 2011).